Hidden History: A steamboat captain’s dream for success

IRVINGTON, Va. (WRIC) — Captain Hansford Bayton is not a common household name. The steamboat captain was born the same year President Abraham Lincoln issued the historical Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the nation’s slaves.

Coming up during a very challenging time for racial equality, Captain Bayton got a group of white investors to purchase a steamboat in 1895 to deliver mail up and down the Rappahannock River.

“It (the mail) came from Richmond to Urbana, and then it was by horse and buggy, it came down to this area, so the mail was delayed,” Steamboat Era Museum worker Candee Pevahouse explained.

Initially, Bayton was a success, and with his success, he did something very risky for his time: He purchased a very impressive house for his family.

“Well, it was fancier than all the white guys,” Pevahouse said. “His farm was 162-acres, it had out-buildings, barns and things like that.”

But, envy and racism may be the reasons why Bayton’s success did not last. It was common for steamboats to accidentally go up in flames, but over a period of time, all four of Bayton’s boats caught fire.

“It was somewhat common, but for one man who happens to be black to have all four boats burn, it’s an amazing coincidence, if it is a coincidence,” Pevahouse said.

In fact, after one of his boats burned, the local paper wrote an article about it, and another article was also written that Jim Crow was the law of the land, a possible message that was meant for Bayton.

“Well, don’t get too rich, don’t get too uppity, you’re okay for a black guy. That to me was a pretty clear message, but he still kept going, he bought other boats after that,” stated Pevahouse.

Unfortunately, Bayton financially never really recovered from the loss of his first boat; he died sickly, frail and almost penniless.

“He pretty much died penniless,” Pevahouse said. “When his first boat burned he could never get his feet underneath him again because as a businessman you have to leverage what you have to get what you need. The last letter he wrote he said ‘I am a man of pity’ and that wasn’t easy for him to say, I would think, he was proud enough to know he was valuable but not too proud. You can’t be too proud that will get you more than just your boats burned.”

Nonetheless, the museum worker said Bayton’s story should be celebrated.

“Perseverance, perseverance,” she said. “It’s a sad story on one hand, but it’s uplifting in another because, you know, he wasn’t the only person out there like that, many other African Americans of that era were working hard to make a living and he got to great heights, it’s an amazing story.

This weekend at the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, Virginia, people can meet Bayton’s great-great-granddaughter, who has written a book about the captain’s life.

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